How to Innovate With Passion [Yes! And. Blog 161]

“As the earlier vintages matured in bottle and progressively became less aggressive and more refined, people generally began to take notice, and whereas previously it had been all condemnation, I was now at least receiving some praise for the wine.”

Max Schubert – Viniculturist

161 Penfolds Wine Cellar

Penfolds Cellar, Adelaide

I have fond memories of making and drinking my own wine when I was younger and short of cash. My ’84 vintage, produced from a strawberry jam that never set, was a classic. This increased my interest in wines and I like to take the opportunity to visit wine growing districts when I can.

Being in Magill, Adelaide recently and just a short walk from the Penfolds winery where they make their premium Grange wines, it was a great chance to see how they do things in Australia and perhaps give them some tips!

To move away from a tradition of drinking fortified wines like port and sherry in Australia, winemaker Max Schubert experimented with making the first vintage of Penfolds Grange wine in 1951. In 1950, Schubert had toured Europe and observed wine-making techniques in Bordeaux. Back in Adelaide he implemented these techniques with the aim to create a red wine of the same quality and ageing ability of the finest Bordeaux wines.

In 1952, he released his first commercial vintage, having given away most of the 1951 vintage, however, wine critics gave it negative reviews and it sold poorly. Later vintages received a similar response until in 1957, the management team of Penfolds in Sydney told Schubert to stop producing it.

Schubert ignored their instructions (as you do) and continued making the wine from 1957 through 1959, bricking up the barrels behind a wall in the cellars so that the management team could not find them!

By 1960, opinion changed, wine critics highly valued the early Grange wine, it won many medals and management instructed Schubert to “restart” the production that had never stopped. I would love to have been present when he told the team what he had done!

A half bottle of the ‘52 vintage will now cost you around £5000 and many people regard Grange as the finest Australian wine. Our tour guide had great pleasure in recounting this story as we stood in the very cellar where the wine had been bricked up.

I thought the story was a classic to rival the rather over told story of 3M’s Post-it Notes in innovation literature, but I had never heard it before. I did further research on arriving home and discovered that aside from the innovative idea of moving the Australian public away from fortified wines, Schubert came up with further innovations:

  • He used Shiraz grapes rather than Cabernet Sauvignon (used in Bordeaux) as he felt them better suited to the climate in Adelaide
  • He used American oak barrels (rather than French) to mature the wine, recognising a synergy between Shiraz and American oak barrels. (He was unable to use these on the 1957 to 1959 vintages in case the expenditure on new barrels alerted the management team)
  • He mimicked the cold conditions of a Bordeaux winery by using a stone based form of refrigeration to slow the maturation of the wine.


The story led me to think about the traits that Schubert had as an innovator. A little research on the Internet revealed different traits based on different research. Does anyone really know the traits of an innovator? There seem to be common ones but others probably depend on the context; so let me review his story and surmise what those traits might be in his case. Here are my suggestions:

Passionate: He clearly had a great passion (dare I say “thirst” as the thesaurus suggests) for wine making.

Persevering / Persistent: To carry on having been told to stop displays a high level of perseverance, probably bordering on the obdurate. Perhaps “devious” (in a positive way) is another trait! Some of you might consider this “courage.”

Curious: His trip to Europe to find out more indicates a high level of curiosity, as does his use of different grapes and wood.

Imaginative: It seems logical that an innovator will be imaginative, but did Schubert have imagination to create original ideas or rather imagination to take disparate ideas and fit them together in novel ways? Some might consider this “Observation.”

Practising: Schubert refined his skills over many years of developing his wines. His 1955 vintage was the first to win medals.

Some other traits I found on the Internet were: Playful; Patient; Positive; Persuasive; Expressive; Challenges assumptions. Maybe an important trait is “Lucky.”  After all, the wine could have been a failure and he could have lost his job.


What do you consider are the traits of an innovative person? Compile your own list.

To Close

Probably because it appears to be from the perspective of innovators, I enjoyed this definition of people in organisations; I found it in a chat forum on traits.

  • Risk takers are the innovators in an organisation; they possess the creative traits.
  • Caretakers usually maintain the status quo, seeing changes as threats, rather than opportunities.
  • Undertakers are those people who are extremely resistant to change and are even willing to bury projects or sabotage ideas to maintain the status quo.

At first glance you could view the management team in Penfolds back in 1957 as Undertakers. Is that fair? After six years of bad reviews and a lot of investment, how many of us might have been tempted to end this experiment? What if they had carried on investing only to find the wine was nowhere as good as my ’84 strawberry?

Wishing you an innovative week.

John Brooker I Yes! And. Think Innovatively.

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